Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Here are three steps we should take in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

By Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell  Best Defense Guest columnists Putin does not seem to get it: despite the fact that we live in the 21st century, he is upping the ante in Ukraine and continues his 19th-century behavior. And to the puzzlement of the Western onlookers, the 19th century is winning. The 21st ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Wikimedia

By Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell 

Best Defense Guest columnists

Putin does not seem to get it: despite the fact that we live in the 21st century, he is upping the ante in Ukraine and continues his 19th-century behavior. And to the puzzlement of the Western onlookers, the 19th century is winning.

By Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell 

Best Defense Guest columnists

Putin does not seem to get it: despite the fact that we live in the 21st century, he is upping the ante in Ukraine and continues his 19th-century behavior. And to the puzzlement of the Western onlookers, the 19th century is winning.

The 21st century, with its economic interdependence, "hashtag" diplomacy, norms of nonviolence, and complicated global institutions, does not seem to be able to stop him. While the West argues, Putin is opening new fronts in eastern Ukraine, more Russian paratroopers are "volunteering," and tanks and other lethal weapons are appearing in the hands of separatist rebels who have no logistics of their own making. The question then is: what will stop Putin? 21st-century policies are certainly not doing it.

First, words matter. We, meaning the United States and NATO, have to be willing to use the appropriate terms to describe what is happening in Ukraine: this is an invasion, not a rebellion. A real, bloody war, not a brawl between military re-enactors. Once we are clear on the definition, we can start to think about the proper response.

Second, if we want Ukraine to survive as an independent and coherent polity, the goal should be to inflict sufficient pain on Russia now, not in some distant future. Targeted sanctions, travel bans, and global shaming are all fine and may hurt Putin and his court at some point. But for now, the tanks are rolling. The U.S. and our allies (even a select few will do — no reason to wait for unanimity here) should arm and train Ukrainian forces. To minimize our involvement, creative ways to do this are perfectly appropriate (such as sending Cold War-era weapons from Central European countries to Kiev). But it is clear that the German-led, Washington-approved "leading from behind" approach of coaxing Putin to negotiate with Poroshenko in some grand "Finnish" bargain is not working. 

Third, Russia is engaged in a limited war but it is seeking much more than a territorial adjustment. It is a war limited on the tactical and operational level, but politically Putin is ogling at more than just tearing a piece of Ukraine away. Russia’s war with Ukraine is a strong shove of the entire security architecture built and supported by the United States in Europe. It is a forceful probe, a test of whether the Western political unity and security guarantees are more than rhetoric proffered at regular summits. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is certainly not an invasion of a NATO country, but it cannot but be seen also as a test run of sorts. It is a violent way of asking: What would NATO, and the U.S., do when a small group of unmarked armed men takes over a border village in Latvia or Poland? What is the response to a few Russian tanks getting "lost" in Lithuania? And more broadly, what is NATO’s response to Russian power suddenly coming much closer to its eastern frontier? A simple restatement of NATO’s Article 5 is not sufficient: extended deterrence was not designed to counter such threats. A readjustment of NATO bases and U.S. presence in Europe is needed.

But even more so, what is needed is some serious thinking on how to beef up local defenses, the only way to inflict immediate costs on the "jab-and-grab" war that Russia is pursuing. The frontline states, most vulnerable to a Russian attack, have to be able to hurt Russia before they can receive the support promised by their allies in Europe and North America.

In brief, let’s call it a war, let’s arm the Ukrainians, and let’s figure out how to make NATO’s eastern members be able to punch back.

Jakub Grygiel is the George H. W. Bush Associate Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.  A. Wess Mitchell is president of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.